US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy pivot to Asia took a hit this week, and it came from a stalwart of his own party.
Top Democratic Senator Harry Reid announced that he opposes legislation that is key for a trans-Pacific trade pact that is arguably the most important part of Obama’s effort to step up US engagement in Asia.
Since Obama rolled out the policy, most attention has been on the military aspect, largely because it was billed as a rebalance in US priorities after a decade of costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, officials have increasingly stressed the pivot is about more than military and cementing the US’ stature as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific as China grows in strength. It is about capitalizing on the region’s rapid economic growth.
Hence the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious free-trade agreement being negotiated by 12 nations including Japan that account for about 40 percent of global GDP.
“The pivot is the TPP right now,” Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told a conference at a Washington think tank this week on US policy and the outlook for Asia this year.
The Obama administration’s Asia policy has been welcomed by countries leery of China’s rise and expansive territorial claims. During the president’s first term, the US has made headway in strengthening old alliances with nations like the Philippines, forging deeper ties with Indonesia and Vietnam, and befriending former pariah state, Myanmar.
There were missteps. Rancorous politics at home forced Obama to withdraw from the East Asia Summit last fall, raising some questions about his commitment to the region. New military deployments in the Asia-Pacific — a few hundred US Marines in Australia, new warships rotated through Singapore — have fueled Chinese accusations of a US policy of containment while making little impact on regional security.
Asia got little mention in Obama’s state of the union address on Tuesday, adding to perceptions in some quarters that the pivot has dropped a peg or two in the administration’s policy agenda in the president’s second term.
However, he did urge both parties in congress to approve so-called fast-track legislation needed to make TPP and a trade deal under negotiation with Europe a reality, saying it would open new markets and create US jobs.
The problem for Obama is that a lot of his fellow Democrats are set against fast-track that would require congress to act on the trade deals negotiated by the administration by a yes-or-no vote, without the ability to make any changes.
Reid said on Wednesday he opposed fast-track and that lawmakers should not push for it now — a comment that suggests that legislation introduced three weeks ago will go nowhere soon.
While that legislation is co-sponsored by a senior Democrat — Obama’s nominee to become the next ambassador to China, Max Baucus — many in the party join with labor unions in opposing lowered trade barriers, which they worry will cost jobs due to increased competition. That includes the lead Democrat on trade policy in the House of Representatives, who wants fast-track to stipulate a more active role for congress in trade policy and measures to address currency manipulation.
So in a bitterly divided Washington, Obama’s in the rare position of having more support for a key policy among his political rivals, the Republicans, than from his own party.